`I feel I am winning'


I had a heart attack in 1980 but at the time my symptoms were attributed to an infection so I didn't find out about it until last year. Looking back, I think I was very fortunate not to know that I had heart disease for the past 18 years because if I had known, I probably would have lived my life very differently. At times, my work has been very pressured and stressful but I enjoy it. I've definitely a driven, "Type A personality". I joined the bank straight from school and was tested and found to have an aptitude for systems analysis so I was chosen in 1972 to move the bank to a computerised system. While I had incredible stress in my work, I was also completely sedentary and had, like most people, a very rich, fatty diet. I was about two stone overweight.

A year ago I couldn't walk 100 metres without having to stop to catch my breath due to angina, which was untreated because it had unfortunately been masked by a digestive problem. In October 1997, I had a full check-up in the Blackrock Clinic. An angiogram showed that one of my arteries had been completely blocked at the time of the heart attack in 1980 and that as a result my blood had begun to flow in the opposite direction and other blood vessels had accommodated the blood flow. My remaining arteries were up to 80 per cent blocked.

Last October, I was given a choice of a bypass, or to take medication, improve my diet and see how things went. I had survived for so many years without the bypass, that I decided to leave it and take the medication. I had to alter my diet drastically - cutting out grills, chips and other fatty foods. By February, my cholesterol level had dropped and I was able to get through the day without pain.

I applied for and was chosen to take part in a Behavioural Medicine Research Programme, "St Michael's II", from March to May of this year. I took a series of physical and psychological tests that revealed my personality profile, which was made up of different "stressotypes". After eight weeks of interventions such as self-hypnosis, yoga, positive aspiration and meditation, my stressotypes were measured again.

In eight weeks, my "cliff-walker" stressotype score went down from 42 to 18, which means that I had dramatically reduced the Type A behaviour which increases the risk of a heart attack; my "basket-case" score, which measures the tendency to colds, 'flu and low-grade infection, went down from 36 to 25; my "speed-freak" improved from 57 to 35; my "worry-wort" score was reduced from 28 to 19 and my "vitality factor" increased from 377 to 446, taking me from the high-risk group to the positive group. The higher the vitality factor, the slower the ageing rate.

The interventions I learned in the programme have now become a regular part of my day and I feel I am winning against heart disease. I don't have a lot of time and I'm still busy in work. But I manage to find time for "positive aspiration". As I walk, breathing deeply, I tell myself that "my arteries are widening 10 per cent today and I feel great". It has a tremendous effect and I recommend that anyone try it.

I also practise self-hypnosis, which is something you can do whenever you have a spare couple of minutes at your desk or sitting in traffic. I give myself a specific, single message, such as, "my blood pressure will be 120/80 within the week". I also do yoga, sitting at my desk or in the car. It's the sort of thing you don't have to stand up and get into complicated positions to do.

I also walk nearly every day for about 20 minutes; I can walk for as long as I want now without pain for the first time in years. However, I do find that if I don't take the medication, the pain returns. I would stress that my medication and diet are extremely important and that behavioural medicine is complementary to, rather than a replacement for, conventional medicine.

In conversation with Kathryn Holmquist

Behavioural medicine is an interdisciplinary field based on research evidence from Stanford University that physical, environmental and psychosocial stresses exert profound influences on the immune system, and that certain interventions may delay disease progression, prolong survival time and improve quality of life. In Dublin, a controlled trial by psychotherapists Dr Sean Collins and Rhoda Draper of the Ardagh Clinic, with the assistance of the TCD's Department of Psychology, has shown that behavioural medicine can reduce biological ageing in people with many different diseases, including heart disease, cancer, MS and ME. The Ardagh Clinic's new website is launched this week.

For more information, contact Ardagh Clinic, 188 Stillorgan Road, Dublin 4, tel (01) 2600118. Website address: http:// www.iol.ie/~ therapy